In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection

Eighteenth Century

As of the year 2020, the earliest garments in the MHS collection reach back into the eighteenth century. Two gowns are made of imported, probably English, woven floral silks. Such textiles were the product of highly skilled, intensive hand labor, and an extreme luxury afforded by only the wealthiest individuals. One of the dresses likely originated in the 1740s. Updated to an 1760-1775 style, it features a square neckline, fitted cone shaped bodice, straight at the front waist forming a curved point at the back, three quarter sleeves frilled at the elbow, and a full skirt. The textile’s darkish color and heavy figured pattern are characteristic of the earlier part of the century. The dress' provenance is complicated by its backstory. The dress is said to have been created (updated) for an 1825 ball in Portland, in honor of Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. By 1825, the dress was altered and re-constructed, perhaps as a costume (known at the time as "fancy dress") in homage to the Marquis, or as an early example of the colonial revival movement.

Another gown, also the subject of front bodice alteration, is made of a mid-century imported silk with the newer, lighter style of design, an off-white ground, with dainty blue and white leafy serpentine stripes, and scattered floral sprays. The gown features a sack back with pleats falling from the shoulders into a train, a style still worn for dress occasions as late as 1770-1785.

Contrasting with these two luxurious and fashionable gowns, a modest small child’s dress in the collection is a rare eighteenth century survivor. With a square neck, pin tucked bodice, and short frilled edge sleeves, this worn and simple little dress is made of a coarse cotton, block printed with a brown background, with a red (madder) and blue (indigo) floral pattern. It bears a label, stating "1779. Worn by Miss Olive Gray, born in North Yarmouth, Maine."

A quilted petticoat of bright pink calamanco (polished wool) with a linsey-woolsey (linen and wool) lining provides an example of the quilted skirts worn with, and as part of, other eighteenth century and earlier garments. Quilted petticoats of different fabrics and degrees of quilting complexity were worn under short gowns (so called because they extended only a short distance below the waist over the petticoat), and with round gowns, in which case they were visible in the inverted V skirt front openings.

Reflective of eighteenth-century political upheavals, social change, and enlightenment ideas, modes of dress changed during the late eighteenth century. By 1800 women's formal, stiff wide skirted cumbersome gowns had disappeared. In their stead was something totally different: simple high waisted nightdress-like white cotton dresses. The change was not as abrupt as it might seem. The new fashion had origins in soft informal one-piece muslin gowns such as those favored by French Queen Marie Antoinette and her circle as an alternate to the extravagant excess of required royal court dress, and seen in her 1783 portrait by Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Adopted into the more mainstream, the style subsequently developed into a slimmer gown with a gathered raised waist.

Progress away from heavy full skirted formal silks to simpler styled cottons is traced in numerous late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century portraits by artists such as Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Gainsborough and Henry Raeburn. Roman statues excavated at Herculaneum at this time contributed to interest in simple draped dress. By 1800 women enjoyed the relative freedom of loose, partly classically inspired short waisted gowns, notably made of cotton, fashion’s new favorite fabric.

During this period male dress also underwent change. A combination of the eighteenth century English taste for clothes suited to an active country life, fine quality English dark wool broadcloth, and skilled tailoring led to the rise of superior English tailored male dress. This supplanted heretofore dominant French male silk and velvet fashions, suitable only for languid court life. Modern male dress has its origins in the tailored wool of this period. Fancy silk embroidered vests, such as Samuel Freeman's circa 1775-1785 vest in the MHS collection, are the most commonly surviving items of mid-eighteenth-century male dress.

By the end of the eighteenth century fashion was international. Social elite and economically advantaged people in every European country, and in America, all followed fashion and dressed in the same style. Even in such far flung places as Maine (then thinly inhabited), the financially comfortable genteel members of its small and scattered communities kept abreast of fashion. In anticipation of a social event during her visit to the small stylish town of Wiscasset in 1800, young Eliza Southgate wrote home urging her mother to “please send my spotted muslin.” And, as the book Agreeable Situations (Brick Store Museum, 1987) records, in about 1800, transfer printed depictions of Portland’s Hannah Robinson and her daughters wearing high waist dresses appeared on a large pitcher made for Robinson in Liverpool, England.